The Retreaters, page 8
His feet dangle.
When they arrive at the retreat Robert parks the bus on the circular driveway, and the motor mustn’t want to stop because it makes lots of ticking noises before it gives up. The young couple gets off, and Robert jumps out after them and disappears round the corner, probably to have a cigarette. On his tree-climbing expeditions, Jake has found several cigarette butts wedged into the cracks and footholds of the old oak tree behind the main building. When he hears the term, ‘nasty habit’, he thinks not so much of the act of smoking but of people sticking the butts into a tree.
With no running engine and no driver, the stillness in the bus is like being underwater.
If only Ruth would appear now. Ruth, who filled the void. Ruth, who somehow made their mother laugh. Ruth, with her golden hair and her perfect smile. But he should not think about her too much. He knows this, knows that too much remembering is the very thing that will make him forget. He will sweep his mind clear of her, if he’s not careful.
Silence burns Jake’s throat like the start of a sickness. Words swim in his mind, overflow to his mouth only when the space in his head is taken up. He has no control — whatever comes out is simply that which spills over. Things were better when Ruth did most of the talking, when all Jake had to do was be the little brother. He feels around in his pocket for the Milky Way bar, which he has already retrieved from one of the grocery bags, and lightly closes his hand around the bar’s edges.
‘Mum?’ he says. ‘Are you okay?’ Always the wrong question, still the most common.
His mother’s face is carved of stone. ‘Not now, Jake.’ She climbs out of the bus, bags in hand, and once Jake is out too, she slams the sliding door. The minivan shudders.
‘Mum?’ He almost trips over his own shoes. ‘Maybe you should have a lie down.’
Her eyes are grey, sharp. ‘Shut up, Jake,’ she says.
Jake’s feet begin to sweat. He opens his mouth. Nothing comes out.
What she remembers of her parents, she remembers in flashbacks; the memories come, interspersed with her real life, like italicised sections in a book — brief, poignant interludes, meant somehow to help her make sense of present events. Her mother’s hair, brown like a gumnut and always pulled back, her habit of chewing the tails of pens. Her father’s hands, large and pale like a pianist’s, the creases punctuated with chalk dust. Liv the bespectacled child of two bespectacled teachers, the bright, bookish student who was spared the teasing bestowed on other bright bookish students because her classmates believed that — since both her parents worked on the staff — she had immediate access to parental back-up. In truth, neither of Liv’s parents would ever have interfered in the normal course of her school life; they’d have let Liv’s teacher sort it out. They believed in the domain of the classroom. They believed in words. They believed in books. They believed in coffee and newspapers on a Saturday morning. They wore matching tracksuits around the house, and they called Liv Olly, short for Olivia, until she was old enough to ask them not to. She’s all but forgotten the sound of their voices, her memories faded like the photos in her album — her favourite, a black-and-white Polaroid of the two of them riding a ski-lift during their one-and-only trip to Thredbo, taken three years before Liv was born. Who took the photo? A ski instructor, a chaperone? They met in their first year as teachers, both fresh out of university, both majoring in English. He was two years her senior, having spent a couple of years between school and university working in various pubs around London. He came back to Australia and became a teacher. They discovered, during their first week of working together, that they’d grown up three blocks from one another, in Sydney’s western suburbs. In the seventies, while other twenty-somethings smoked and danced in bellbottoms to the Bee Gees, Liv’s parents held picnics in the tiny backyard of their Ashfield terrace house. Sprawled out on a tartan rug, they read to each other, he from Patrick White, she from Jane Austen.
Liv, nestled between them on the blanket, was the conductor. Words travelled through her like a current. They still do.
Ben stands beside a blue Holden, a beaten-up ute.
‘Whose car?’ Liv asks.
‘Mine’s in the shop,’ Ben says. ‘This is Mason’s, the gardener’s. He lent it to me for the morning.’
Liv climbs into the cabin, slanting her legs. Mason. She hadn’t wondered about the gardener’s name, until now. On the dashboard is a pen and a folded handkerchief. A tape in the deck. Nothing more. She takes a deep breath. ‘How is Mr Graham going, since his surgery?’
‘Mick’s good. Won’t be able to work for a while. Lucky this new bloke showed up when he did. Taking care of the gardens and the horses is a full-time job.’
The control knob is missing from the radio. Through the small hole left in its absence, tiny coloured wires protrude. ‘Where’s he from,’ she asks, ‘the new guy?’
Ben turns the engine over and pumps the accelerator. ‘All over, I think. Bit of a wanderer.’
Against the unclean windscreen, bug residue crystallises, and inside the vehicle, the lingering aroma of grease permeates the upholstery. The smell bothers Liv. It sticks in her nostrils. If only she had a bottle of the miraculous Wipe Clean with her, she could do wonders.
She comments on the sunny weather, and as she half hears herself, she’s flooded with relief. She has been right to wait. Her problem is fixing itself. She can hear, for instance, the hum of the engine. She winds down her window to let in the breeze.
Above, birds fly in V-shaped formations.
The mountains seem to absorb the sun, a cow chews cud, a windmill turns.
At the edge of the town the highway narrows and businesses start claiming the roadside — large, shed-type businesses selling farm equipment and used cars. The small concrete stretch of McMahon’s Bridge signals the entrance to the township proper, and through her open window, Liv feels the presence of the river below, the coolness like a force-field. The main street, unhindered by traffic lights or stop signs, flows past the bakery, the hamburger joint, the small Best & Less, the National Australia Bank, the vet clinic, the Chinese restaurant, and the four pubs (one of which, even though it’s May, still sports Christmas decorations on its awnings).
Ben parks out the front of the sprawling local supermarket. A few years back, several smaller shops were knocked down to make room for the new building, and it now sits in their place, victorious. A wall of a structure, its ugliness is commented on by tourists and locals alike. Its shopfront contains no glass, no windows at all; a triumph, in crime-fighting terms, since even the most bleak-minded thug won’t attempt to break through a solid wall of concrete. Besides, what use are windows when no advertising is required to draw in the customer base? It’s the only grocery shop in town.
Inside, pensioners and young mothers eye themselves doubtfully in the security monitors while their shoes squeak on the newly polished floors. Broad-hatted farmers check the price of beef in the meat section and take a wide berth around the colourful end-of-aisle displays.
‘Most of the groceries get delivered straight to the retreat,’ Ben says, ‘but I changed the menu this week. I had a craving for garlic mash.’ He heaves a huge bag of washed potatoes into the cart. ‘We’ve got a winery tour group arriving tomorrow,’ he says, and he adds another bag of potatoes.
‘Yes,’ Liv says. ‘They’re in Villas 20 through to 29. Twin-share beds.’
Ben gently tosses a tomato from one hand to the other, and selects several more using the same method. He sits them atop the potatoes, like a garnish. ‘Twice the work for you, I guess, twin share.’
Liv shrugs. ‘I don’t mind.’ In the glass that separates her from the frozen goods, she catches her own reflection, her features intermingling with the covers of pizza boxes. Ham and pineapple on a thin crust. Bobbed hair. Glasses.
‘You grow up here?’ Ben asks.
She hears him without having to watch his lips. His voice subdued, but there. Real words, heard not
He picks up a packet labelled Australian Beef Jerky, and waves it. ‘You local. Me import.’
‘Where are you from?’
‘Manchester. Born and bred. I came here not long after I finished my apprenticeship. Worked all over for a while, Perth, Sydney, the north coast. Then I saw the ad for the job here in Hatton River, and the rest, as they say, is history.’
‘But you’ve always been a chef?’
He guides the cart round a corner, nudging one of the wheels with his shoe. ‘Cooking’s all I ever wanted to do.’ He stands at the edge of the meat freezer, the place where cold air meets hot. He shivers. His skin, in the face of all that red meat, glows pink.
‘Just look at the price of lamb, would you?’ he says. ‘If this drought doesn’t break soon I might have to come up with a vegetarian menu.’
‘Liv?’ says a voice. And though it sounds muffled, Liv recognises it in an instant.
She turns, and there, next to the meat freezer, is Mrs Bourne.
‘Anne,’ Liv says, using Mrs Bourne’s first name, as she was always instructed to do. For Heaven’s sake, Liv, call me Anne. I’m not a school teacher.
Liv falters, wondering if she could hug Mrs Bourne and still comply with the woman’s strict personal space requirements. At the library, Mrs Bourne, even when unprotected by the barrier of the library’s front desk, seemed to inhabit her very own column of atmosphere; there was something about her that could not be touched. Liv is pleased to see that this untouchability, this regal air, remains unchanged by whatever tasks Mrs Bourne is forced to undertake at the local fish shop. She is pleased, also, to find that Mrs Bourne smells not of fried potato or of crumbed calamari, but as she always did: like lavender and the highest quality writing paper.
‘You found another job, I hear?’ says Mrs Bourne in her proper, lilting tone. She was raised, she once told Liv, to give the impression of coming from money, even though she came from no such thing.
‘Yes, I’m working out at Cottonwood Retreat,’ Liv says. She gestures toward Ben, who is busying himself selecting meat from the freezer. ‘We’re just in town for some supplies.’
Mrs Bourne nods approvingly, in acknowledgement that everyone has to work somewhere. Her pale-coloured hair — blonde on its way to becoming grey — is pulled into a rose-shaped knot at the back of her pale neck. She wears, even though her working conditions have changed considerably, the same kind of knitted dress she always wore at the library. The fabric is spotless. She must, Liv thinks, don some kind of apron during her work hours. Her elegant fingers, now grasping a one-litre container of milk, are splayed as though she might at any time be called upon to shelve a book or, in a further throwback, play the cello. ‘Well,’ says Mrs Bourne, ‘I’ve only driven past it, but the retreat looks a beautiful place.’
‘It is,’ Liv says. ‘It’s very clean.’ She means this not as a compliment to herself but as a general observation. In the arena of adjectives, Mrs Bourne appreciates ‘clean’ above all else. The library, some people used to joke, was more sanitary than the local hospital.
‘I was sorry to hear about your aunt,’ Mrs Bourne says. ‘I do hope you received my card?’
‘I did,’ Liv says. ‘Thank you.’
An announcement about chicken wings echoes over the store’s intercom. Liv hears it. Her face brightens to mirror the fluorescence of the store. She is here, and Mrs Bourne (in no way diminished by her new role of fast-food matron) is here. She understands, in that moment, that she and Mrs Bourne remain colleagues in a realm that stretches beyond the library.
She thinks of Edgar Allan Poe:
The angels, whispering to one another,
Can find, among their burning terms of love,
None so devotional as that of ‘Mother’,
Therefore by that dear name I long have called you —
You who are more than mother unto me …
She considers saying the lines aloud, but doesn’t.
‘I’d better keep moving,’ says Mrs Bourne. ‘They’ve only dispatched me to get milk and a couple of loaves of bread to tide us over until the next delivery. The trucks are late this week, you see. Some kind of hold up in the Blue Mountains.’ In her straight-spined way, her pale lips held firmly together, she prepares to move off. She switches the milk carton to an under arm position, and says, ‘I do miss the library, though, my dear. I wouldn’t have you think otherwise.’
Oh, words. Nothing in this world can match them.
At the back entrance to Cottonwood the hills look wild, their slopes generously covered with trees like a full head of hair, uncombed and beautifully tangled. To the left of the road, at the very foot of the hills, a dark creature moves. A blackish shadow amidst the russet pine trunks.
‘Was that a dog?’
‘Nope, a boar,’ Ben says. He guides the car around a pothole.
‘As in a pig?’
‘The pig’s ugly cousin, I guess you could say.’
The next pothole he doesn’t miss, and the interior of the ute rattles. The cassette tape falls to the floor and Liv quickly retrieves it, places it back where it belongs, in the open slot of the deck. She folds her hands in her lap, tries to avoid touching anything further. Already, something is rubbing off on her — not grease exactly, but of the equivalent texture.
She thinks of Mrs Bourne. Of her lavender smell. Her librarian dress. Liv hopes she herself remains similarly unchanged by her new profession (if one can call cleaning a profession), so that if the library does reopen, she might slip back into her role like a fish into water.
The main building comes into view. The tall cream walls, the Virginia creeper.
At the rear of the estate, beneath a large peppercorn tree, Ben brings the car to a halt. Near the back entrance to the kitchen, a man leans over to pick up some tools. He’s dressed in khaki work pants and a long-sleeve shirt. Liv recognises the tanned arms, the muscular thighs. Threatening. Striking, also.
‘There’s Mason,’ Ben says, and he gets out. He gathers the first few bags of groceries from the back and carries them toward the kitchen.
In the cabin, Liv retrieves her bag from the dusty floor and tries to open her door. She tries again, nothing. With one eye on Mason, who has not seen her and is unaware of her predicament, she leans her shoulder against the frame and pushes again. No good.
Then it’s too late. Mason looks up and walks over to the car. His pants are marked with some kind of oil. ‘Need some help?’ he asks.
Liv’s palms itch. The inside of the car is warm with sun. She nods.
Mason leans against the door from the outside, gives it a shove and pulls it open, stands back to let her out. He looks like someone who works with gardens and horses. His shirtsleeves are rolled up to just above his elbows and his forearms are peppered with dirt. Liv looks not at the muscles, not at the covering of hair that is — in contrast to the rest of him — almost fair, but at the clean skin of his inner elbow, right in the crease. She breathes him in, wonders if he always smells this mechanical, this much like moving parts.
He wipes his hand on his work pants, holds it out toward her. ‘Mason,’ he says, and there’s that look again, that understated glimmer that no amount of dust or grease can hide.
‘Liv,’ she says, as though they’ve never met. How small her fingers look when his hand closes around them, how pale.
If Evelyn had her time over again, she’d live her life with a bit more thought, would possibly even have accepted Oscar Maynard’s proposition of marriage back in 1962. Poor Oscar, with his wiry red hair and stick-out ears that needed pinning to his head. His heart was good, and he was as strong as an ox; he would have provided Evelyn with a home, possibly children (even big-eared, freckled children might have been better than none). She would have had something to show for her life, at least.
But work always seemed a better option than marriage. What Evelyn d
She groans, pulls back the bed covers and puts her feet on the floor. No carpet, wool-blend or otherwise, can disguise the cold concrete slab she shares with the laundry. She asks her toes why they have to look so bloody ugly. Age bends them at odd angles.
It takes her a damn sight longer than usual to dress and, surprisingly, much longer than usual to decide on an item to discard this week. She’s going to steer clear of both the St Vincent de Paul and the Salvation Army for a while — they’ve started looking at her as if she’s trying to offload stolen goods each time she donates something. Last week, at the Salvo’s, Mr Richards had fingered her watch, which used to be her father’s, for a good five minutes before deciding to accept it.
‘What’s wrong with it?’ he’d asked, his bulbous head tottering on his weakling body.
‘Nothing,’ Evelyn had said. ‘I just don’t want it any more.’ The hide of him, Evelyn thought, looking a gift horse in the mouth.
His scrawny fingers fumbled around the piece. ‘Why not?’
‘Why do you think? Someone else might get more use from it.’ This was not a lie. She couldn’t read the time any more, not on a watch face so small, and she would prefer someone else to have it rather than throw it out with the garbage.
Mr Richards licked his lips and rephrased. ‘I was only concerned that it may be of monetary value and that we should perhaps pay you something for it. Or else you should take it to the pawn shop.’